The first morning of a recent business trip to British Columbia, I walked into a bakery for coffee and walked out with coffee and a fascinating treat called a Nanaimo bar. I took a bite. I was a goner. Along with the butter tart, the Nanaimo (pronounced Nuh-NIME-oh) bar is one of the great Canadian sweets, a 3-layer chocolate-and-vanilla cream confection that puts the drab brownie to shame. The genius of the bar lies in its contrasting flavors and textures. A nubby cocoa crust is iced with cool, smooth vanilla cream which is in turn capped with a thin layer of melted chocolate. The recipe first appeared in a 1952 hospital auxiliary cookbook under the name “chocolate square” and while no one is sure who invented it, or where, the town of Nanaimo takes the credit. I spent the next four days of my trip sampling Nanaimo bars everywhere I went, which was easy because they are ubiquitous, the chocolate chip cookie of British Columbia. For the record, if you’re ever in Victoria, Bond Bond’s bakery made the best Nanaimo bar I tasted, although the Nanaimo bar at a Vancouver Starbucks was pretty terrific.
The Nanaimo bar is not unknown in the United States, but it has never really caught on, probably a blessing because once you taste a Nanaimo bar, you will find your mind wandering to Nanaimo bars and that is very bad news for the BMI. I came home from my trip and started looking for a recipe. The city of Nanaimo touts a version made with ground almonds and coconut in the crust, and some recipes call for pecans, but I have found I prefer the astringency of walnuts. I also think the coconut gets lost, so I don’t bother with it.
The middle layer is traditionally made by creaming butter, sugar, and Bird’s custard powder, a British product that gives the filling its yellow color.
A 2012 Saveur recipe that substituted powdered milk and yielded a snow-white filling outraged Canadian readers, one of whom likened a Nanaimo bar without Bird’s custard powder to a pecan pie without pecans. American recipes sometimes call for pudding mix, which is easier to find here than Bird’s, but I’m sad to report that the bars I made with Jell-O French vanilla pudding mix tasted brazenly artificial. You need the custard powder, which you can find in well-stocked supermarkets or order online. Finally, for the glaze, don’t waste your fancy 82% Scharffen Berger chocolate. It’s too harsh and will overpower the delicate custard and mild cocoa crust. You want a semisweet chocolate that plays well with others, like supermarket chocolate chips.
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
5 tablespoons cocoa powder
big pinch kosher salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs (10 whole crackers)
1 cup walnuts, chopped
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 cups powdered sugar
3 tablespoons Bird’s custard powder
2 tablespoons milk or cream
6 ounces semisweet chocolate
For the crust, melt the butter in a saucepan, then stir in the sugar, cocoa, and salt, mixing until smooth. Add the vanilla and egg and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, for 4 minutes. The mixture will become glossy and pull away from the sides of the pan. Stir in the graham cracker crumbs and walnuts. Pack this into a 8 x 12 inch pan, patting smooth, and refrigerate until firm and cool. (You can use a 9 x 13 inch pan, though the bars will be slightly thinner.)
Make the icing by beating all the ingredients together until very smooth and fluffy. Spread this over the cooled crust and return the pan to the refrigerator. Chill until the icing is cold and firm.
Melt the chocolate and spread over the icing. Refrigerate again until well chilled. Cut into 24 squares. An off-set spatula is very helpful in getting the bars out of the pan intact.